NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The NFL filed court documents Friday indicating suspended Saints linebacker Jon Vilma initially agreed to a new bounty hearing with Commissioner Roger Goodell last month before Vilma's lawyers and the players union talked him out of it.
The documents were filed in a federal court case that is separate from a ruling by a three-member NFL appeal panel that vacated the bounty suspensions of Vilma and three other players: New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
The players are currently reinstated and can play this weekend, but the federal case, while effectively on hold because of the panel's decision, is not likely to go away soon. Goodell retains the right to hand down new, refined punishments pertaining to the league's nearly three-year investigation of the Saints.
If the players believe the new sanctions are unfair, they could push for their federal case to proceed.
The documents filed in court Friday came in response to a judge's order asking the NFL Players Association to address possible conflicts of interests between union lawyers and three suspended players they represent: Smith, Fujita and Hargrove.
The NFL did not take a position on the matter, but said it filed the documents about the scuttled Vilma hearing because the NFLPA provided information that was "neither accurate nor complete" when it submitted arguments on Thursday asserting there was no conflict of interest.
Vilma has his own attorneys, but documents show the NFLPA discouraged all four suspended players from participating in any rehearing without certain conditions which the league refused to meet.
The NFL wanted the meeting to occur in the form of a new hearing in the bounty matter, with testimony entered on the record. Lawyers for Vilma and the union wanted it to occur in the form of confidential settlement discussions which could not be entered as evidence in any related lawsuits.
The documents show that Vilma wrote on Aug. 20 that he would meet with Goodell on Aug. 23, and that Vilma traveled to New York for the meeting before pulling out on the same day the meeting was scheduled.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan lamented the failure of settlement talks in the case and wrote that she was concerned there were competing agendas among lawyers on all sides in the dispute that were undermining the interests of the players.
The judge asked whether it made more sense for Smith, Fujita and Hargrove to have separate lawyers, rather than the same lawyers representing the NFLPA.
The players told the judge in documents filed Thursday that they were comfortable with union representation. The NFLPA also filed a response in which it explained that it has been seeking to engage the league in settlement talks, "and the NFL continued to refuse to do so, never making a single settlement offer to the Players."
The union added that it, too, sees no conflict in representing the players, but will help them get their own attorneys if the court desires.
The NFLPA and the four players are claiming in their consolidated lawsuits that Goodell abused his authority and followed improper procedures in disciplining the players for a program that, according to NFL investigators, paid improper cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents.
Vilma was suspended the entire season, Hargrove for eight games, Smith for four games and Fujita three games.
All four players had asked for a temporary restraining order that would allow them to rejoin their clubs while the case proceeds, but the panel's decision renders that request moot unless new suspensions are handed down.
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